In the rush to make gains on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests, many of the state's elementary schools have fallen prey to a bedeviling paradox in the 8-year-old program: If schools teach too much to the high-level test, they often neglect to ground students in the basic skills -- particularly reading.
At Timonium Elementary School, improved performance on the annual tests has come from changing instruction to meet the exams' demands -- while sticking with the basics.
"You can't change everything and forget about giving children a strong background in the basics," Timonium Principal Kathy Volk says of the exams, which begin tomorrow in all state elementaries. "The mistake you have to avoid is teaching children only the thinking skills without giving them basic skills."
The MSPAP tests go far beyond the basics in an effort to measure how well children apply these skills in problem-solving. The tests were meant to drive classroom instruction to a higher level. But many schools are finding that, if they make these changes, too many students fail to learn sufficient basic skills -- such as the phonics skills to decode unfamiliar words.
For some, the problem is analogous to pushing students to run before they've mastered walking. "At too many schools, you're asking the children to do the complex thinking before they've had a chance to master the basics," complains Liz Crosby, a state PTA vice president and fourth-grade teacher on leave from Harford County schools.
As Maryland's fifth-graders begin a week of MSPAP exams tomorrow -- with third- and eighth-graders to follow next week -- many teachers and principals hope they have struck a balance between teaching children basic skills and pushing them to the higher-level applications of those skills as required by MSPAP.
It's a balance that few schools have found. Fewer than 10 percent of all Maryland elementary schools have shown statistically significant improvements in both of the past two years, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.
Reading scores tell story
Nowhere is this MSPAP paradox more evident than in children's performance on the reading portion of the state exams.
On the third-grade reading tests, one in five of the state's 786 elementary schools improved their scores two years in a row from 1995 to 1997, according to an analysis by The Sun. Fewer than one in 10 posted higher scores three years in a row during the same period.
State education officials see hope in this. "I think schools are learning what works and what doesn't," says Gertrude Collier, branch chief of language development and early learning at the State Department of Education. "It's taking time, but I think that if we didn't have the MSPAP, it would be taking even more time."
Third grade too soon?
But teachers and parents continue to raise serious questions about the effect the exams have on instruction, particularly in primary grades.
In the fall, the Maryland State Teachers Association put together a task force to look at the tests, focusing on issues such as whether they are appropriate for third-graders and the amount of instructional time they require.
"There are questions about whether third-graders can do this," says MSTA President Karl K. Pence. "Teachers agree that we need to have higher expectations for our children, but there's a concern that this may be too much. There's a feeling among some teachers that they're being pushed to get to the higher-level skills too quickly, before all of the kids have mastered the basics."
The MSPAP exams are known as performance-assessment tests. They ask children to work individually and in groups to apply basic skills in new ways. Instead of fill-in-the-bubble, multiple-choice questions, students must write their answers in sentences and paragraphs.
A lesson for teachers
State school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick does little to sugarcoat the main purpose of the MSPAP -- to force teachers to change their instruction and focus more on higher-level thinking, writing and group work. Students must be able not just to read, write and compute, but also to apply those skills in a variety of ways.
The results are used to judge schools rather than individual students -- and how schools perform can make or break educators' careers. Schools that show consistent improvement are given enough money by the state to buy state-of-the-art computer labs. Schools that decline are publicly labeled failures, and some -- including 79 in Baltimore and one in Anne Arundel County -- have been threatened with state takeover.
These high stakes have prompted schools to try everything from strongly encouraging sick children to attend classes for the exams -- absent students receive a score of zero -- to landing a helicopter on a ball field as part of a rally to motivate children to do well.
State educators strongly discourage such actions, saying that the MSPAP should be treated as a normal part of school. While the hoopla surrounding the exams has diminished in the past few years, some of it began last week and is sure to be repeated again in the next two weeks.
The importance that local school districts and the state attach to the MSPAP also serves as a deterrent to teachers and principals who disagree with portions of the test. While some privately question its value -- particularly at the third-grade level -- they're reluctant to speak out.
"I think it's been useful because it forced a lot of us to improve the way we teach," says one Anne Arundel County third-grade teacher, who asked not to be named. "But third-graders are so young to be taking this kind of test. I'm just not convinced that so much of the fate of our school should be resting on how well our kids perform for just one week."
Test's role questioned
Even the most ardent MSPAP critics agree with at least some of the instructional changes it has brought to classrooms.
But with MSPAP reading test scores failing to rise in most of Maryland's elementary schools -- and attention focusing on the growing numbers of the state's middle- and high-school children struggling to read -- some parents and teachers question what role the tests might play in the failure of many children to learn to read.
The MSPAP's reputation among some parents isn't helped by its having been developed as the "whole-language" philosophy was becoming the dominant philosophy in reading instruction in most of the state's school districts, in contrast with an emphasis on phonics, or decoding the sounds of words.
"The two are tied together," says Mary Pat Kahle, a Baltimore County parent and leading critic of the MSPAP and the whole-language method. "The MSPAP design calls for whole-language instruction. It's a 'whole-language' test."
State education officials acknowledge that the MSPAP reading scores are a reflection of how well students interpret passages and that the test is not a judge of how well students perform the process of decoding words.
"By third grade, children should already have learned the process of reading," says Carla Zamerelli-Clifford, the state Education Department's section chief and specialist in reading and communications skills. "This test asks them to use their reading skills and show how well they're able to interpret the material."
The key is for schools to teach children to read before focusing too narrowly on the interpretive questions, Zamerelli-Clifford says.
4 That is where some schools appear to be failing.
Teaching to the test
"Teachers focus on what children are being tested on," says Doug Carnine, director of the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators at the University of Oregon. "If the first test focuses on higher-level skills, then some teachers are likely to move on to teaching those skills before all of the children have the basics."
Pam Butler fears that the push to teach for the MSPAP has interfered with the reading skills of her three children, who are in grades three, five and seven in Queen Anne's County.
"I could see the classes jumping into the interpretive thinking skills before they had a grip on the basic reading skills," Butler says. "Now, their spelling is horrible, and I think that comes with moving ahead too quickly to prepare for the MSPAP."
Angela Leitzer, a teacher at Middleborough Elementary School in Baltimore County, understands the pressure to push ahead on the MSPAP -- even in her art classes.
"Every lesson I have has a performance assessment in it, and I believe that a lot of that is good for instruction and good for learning," Leitzer says. "But I worry about the basics getting pushed out. I think that's happening to too many children."
The answer might be found in school districts such as Baltimore County and in schools like Timonium Elementary, where third-grade MSPAP reading test scores jumped from 52 percent satisfactory to 72 percent satisfactory from 1995 to 1997.
Two years ago, Baltimore County educators acknowledged the widespread concerns that too many children were failing to learn basic reading skills. They began testing all first- and second-graders on basic reading skills -- and holding schools accountable for performance on those exams.
At Timonium last year, teachers in the primary grades began the program they call SPARC -- skills in phonics, analysis, reading and making connections.
Timonium's first-grade teachers divide the children into groups based on their abilities, bringing in extra teachers from elsewhere in the school to keep the groups small.
"You can't ask the children to do one of the MSPAP-type exercises until they have those skills down," says first-grade teacher Laurie Jones.
The higher-level questions are asked -- but only after the teachers are sure that children understand what they've read.
"The changes in the MSPAP reach all of the way down to kindergarten," says Timonium first-grade teacher Margaret Kimmel. "But we've learned that just because there's a test, everything doesn't have to change. It shouldn't all change. The kids need to learn how to read, and you can't do that without the basics."
Pub Date: 5/03/98